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Joe Ellenberger: The Marathon Begins

"I feel like I’m just scratching the surface now. Getting here was the beginning of a marathon, and I’ve got a whole lot left to do." - Joe Ellenberger

UFC lightweight Joe EllenbergerAs I write this, 4:51pm eastern time on Monday, Joe Ellenberger is still fighting James Moontasri on Saturday night in San Antonio.

It’s not standard procedure to state such things before a fighter profile, but in Ellenberger’s case, it’s a necessity. Since signing on to fight with the UFC, the Nebraska native has been scheduled to compete on two fight cards: UFC 172 in April and UFC Fight Night this weekend in Texas.

At UFC 172, Ellenberger was slated to meet Yancy Medeiros in Baltimore. When Bobby Green was forced out of his bout against Jim Miller, Medeiros was moved into that slot, with Ellenberger then to face the returning Vagner Rocha. Rocha got injured on fight week and the bout was scrapped completely.

Then moved to the San Antonio card, Ellenberger went through the following line-up of opponents before Moontasri was secured:

Francisco Trevino
Johnny Case
Bryan Barberena

Six opponents – one debut. When asked before UFC 172 what the emotions were like to be finally making his Octagon debut after years of struggle to get here, Ellenberger said “there are a lot: joy, relief, happiness. I’m just excited for the opportunity.”

He probably has gone through a few more emotions over the last two months, but in a case of ‘all’s well that ends well,’ it looks like Ellenberger may just get this fight in, as long as he doesn’t walk under ladders or have any black cats cross his path.

And the crazy thing is, as compelling as the tale of his never-ending debut is, it’s not even the best story when it comes to the 29-year-old, whose fighting career – and life – was almost cut short by a rare blood disease called paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH).

Diagnosed in October of 2009, Ellenberger (the twin brother of welterweight contender Jake Ellenberger) was 10-0 as a pro at the time and on his way to the UFC.

Then everything stopped.

At the time, he was 24 and stuck with a disease that he describes as “one in a million. No one in Omaha had ever heard of it.”

His fighting career seemingly over, Ellenberger now had to worry about fighting for his life, and guys like him aren’t in the business of giving up. So he fought back, and soon was given a drug that not only saved his life, but gave him hope that one day he would fight again. The price tag on that drug, Soliris? Over $400,000 a year. But with insurance and help from the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Ellenberger is able to keep his disorder under control. And unlike most that would be in his situation, he didn’t shy away from talking about his ordeal.

“The first few days were pretty dark times, but my faith gave me a heart for using what I have and even my platform to help other people,” he said. “And it’s not only what I have, but any adversity they have to go through. I don’t think you can run into anybody on the planet right now that isn’t going through something, whether it’s a disease, health, the death of loved ones, financial woes or losing a job. Everyone’s got adversity, and I feel like if they can look at my story and it helps them out at all, that’s my goal, and that’s what I’m here for.”

In 2011, he was cleared to fight again, winning four of five fights, with the only loss coming against UFC vet Justin Salas in October of 2011. After the win against Wilk, he was seeking that signature win that would garner him a call from the UFC. He was made promises by various promoters, but he wasn’t buying them.

“After my last fight, I was looking for fights on the regional scene to push me into the UFC, almost to grab that guy who just got cut, or maybe another prospect that was making their way up, but after a while of trying to do it on my own and just trying to figure out ‘who’s gonna get me in’ type of thing, I said I’m gonna go directly to the source. I traded emails with (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva a long, long time ago, before I got diagnosed, about getting in, and so I just shot him a quick email.”

Silva told him that he was wise for not listening to promises from outside the organization, and a dialogue between the two began. The veteran matchmaker knew that Ellenberger had the talent to compete at the UFC level, but there were obviously concerns about his health.

Ellenberger wrote back to Silva.

“There are a lot of guys out there doing these that are too proud to give this up, for whatever reason, and if myself or anyone on my medical team or anyone in my family thought that fighting would be detrimental to my health and not let me live a longer life, then I would have already hung them up. I’m definitely not too proud to know when it’s time. But I feel like I’m in the upper echelon and I’d just like the opportunity to prove that not only to myself but to everybody else that believes in me that I belong with the UFC.”

Eventually, doctors concluded that Ellenberger wasn’t “at any more risk than anybody else,” and he got another green light.

A UFC contract offer followed. Now all he needs is to have someone show up on fight night, and at the moment, another newcomer, Moontasri, is that someone. And while most fighters describe fighting in the Octagon as a dream come true, that dream takes on a whole new meaning for Joe Ellenberger.

“It is a dream come true, obviously, for a guy like me, but I think having the perspective of getting it all taken away from you in an instant, knowing that you’re not invincible, that you’re not in control, I think that frees you from any of the other parts (of making a UFC debut),” he said. “My perspective has shifted enough to where it is a “dream come true,” but I feel like I’m just scratching the surface now. Getting here was the beginning of a marathon, and I’ve got a whole lot left to do and to give and to be a part of, and to show that God does exist.”